Tag Archives: memoirs

“I Shall Always Be With You”

Our mothers didn’t die like this.

Today is the 65th anniversary of the death of a remarkable woman. Milada Horáková was arrested in Prague in 1949 and tried in the 1950 show trial that made the world stand still. She was condemned to death on trumped up charges of treason and being an enemy of the state.

The night before her execution, she was granted 30 minutes with her 16-year old daughter, Jana. After Jana left, Milada was allowed to write three letters: one to her husband, one to her sister, and one to Jana. The letter to Jana never reached her, but it survived. Jana first saw the letter in 1970 when it was published in some kind of underground paper. (I’ve quoted parts of the letter at the end of this blog along with a link to the entire letter.)

After spending the entire night writing her letters, Milada Horáková was brutally executed by hanging (the only woman to be hanged by the communists) in the early hours of June 27, 1950. She was 48 years old.

My connection to this historical figure—this incredibly brave woman, “mother, lawyer, social worker, humanitarian, enemy of dictatorship”—who sacrificed everything for her country, is through a book I’ve written about her colleague and friend who was also condemned to death in the show trials. His sentence was later reduced to 22 years hard labor in the Uranium mines, hence the reason I was able to meet him and write the book about him 50 years later. (The book will be published this fall in Prague, in Czech and English.)

But more important, my connection to her is through my husband’s father and through her only daughter, Jana Horáková Kansky, whom I have the privilege and honor of knowing. She spent many hours telling me the story of her parents, and her own story. The one thing she would not talk about was the content of the visit with her mother that fateful night.

My husband’s father and mother are buried in the Milada Horáková tomb in the National Cemetery in Prague, along with other brave souls who fought for a free Czechoslovakia. No one knows where Milada herself is buried. Jana told me that when she comes to Prague, she visits the tomb and three cemeteries with the hope that she’s visiting her mother.

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Having lost my own mother four years ago, this letter reaches more deeply into my soul than I ever imagined. I have no further words; the heartbreak is too profound. Here are some of Milada’s words to her only little girl Jana:

My only little girl Jana,

God blessed my life as a woman with you. As your father wrote in the poem from a German prison, God gave you to us because he loved us. Apart from your father’s magic, amazing love you were the greatest gift I received from fate. However, Providence planned my life in such a way that I could not give you nearly all that my mind and my heart had prepared for you. The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children.

But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. And therefore, we often had to be apart for a long time. It is now already for the second time that Fate has torn us apart. Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals and you will win over life. Much is still unclear to your young mind, and I don’t have time left to explain to you things you would still like to ask me.

…Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility.

…You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it, not even the memory of your mother and father. If you really love them, you won’t hurt them by seeing them critically—just don’t go on a road which is wrong, dishonest and does not harmonize with life. I have changed my mind many times, rearranged many values, but, what was left as an essential value, without which I cannot imagine my life, is the freedom of my conscience. I would like you, my little girl, to think about whether I was right.

…And don’t forget about love in your life. I am not only thinking of the red blossom which one day will bloom in your heart, and you, if fate favors you, will find a similar one in the heart of another person with whose road yours will merge. I am thinking of love without which one cannot live happily. And don’t ever crumble love—learn to give it whole and really. And learn to love precisely those who encourage love so little—then you won’t usually make a mistake. My little girl Jana, when you will be choosing for whom your maiden heart shall burn and to whom to really give yourself remember your father.

I don’t know if you will meet with such luck as I, I don’t know if you will meet such a beautiful human being, but choose your ideal close to him. Perhaps you, my little one, have already begun to understand, and now perhaps you understand to the point of pain what we have lost in him. What I find hardest to bear is that I am also guilty of that loss.

…Janinko, please take good care of Grandfather Kral and Grandmother Horakova. Their old hearts now need the most consolation. Visit them often and let them tell you about your father’s and mother’s youth, so that you can preserve it in your mind for your children. In that way an individual becomes immortal, and we shall continue in you and in the others of your blood.

…I kiss your hair, eyes and mouth, I stroke you and hold you in my arms (I really held you so little.) I shall always be with you. I am concluding by copying from memory the poem which your father composed for you in jail in 1940…

[There followed a poem written by her husband about the birth of their daughter, and a reading list.]

For the entire letter, here is a link:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/09/i-shall-always-be-with-you.html

For details of Milada Horáková’s incredible life, there are a number of websites. Here are two:

http://coldwarradios.blogspot.it/2010/11/i-leave-this-world-without-hatred.html

http://icv.vlada.cz/en/tema/27-june-1950-execution-of-milada-horakova-74600/tmplid-676/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Old notions

The moment I peer into the box, I’m in another time and place. I’m looking at old notions—old friends—that give me immediate comfort. They represent rituals that introduced girls to the world of sewing. Believe me, this seems like ancient history now, repleat with stereotypical roles, and I’m glad the world has changed in so many ways. But, for the moment I’m taken back to the way it was, and I indulge in the memories.

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In sewing class, you had to have a whole array of notions: red pin cushion, a tin box of Sucrets for bobbins, a seam ripper, a thimble, pinking shears and scissors, a button box, snaps, a can of very fine oil for your sewing machine, and of course the obligatory set of needles.

Good lord, I still have them all…from 1967. The Sucrets box has my signature on a piece of adhesive tape! They don’t make tape like that anymore. I take all of these notions for granted because I still use them.

I smile and shake my head at the three “Happy Home Rust Proof Needle Book” ladies!

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And you know what? They ARE rust proof! The needles, not the ladies.

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The buttons are my most precious notions. Who would have thought that so many memories could spill out of a button box? I rummage around the box, pull out a few, and this is what I see:

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M grandmother’s fur cape with the large blue, braided button.

The anchor button: my dad’s heavy knit sweater he always wore sailing.

The tortoise-shell bob button next to the anchor button: my brother’s P-coat.

The yellow button: my mom’s bathrobe that she wore into tatters. The light blue button of my sister’s formal dance dress. And so many others.

I think it’s good to hold onto some old notions, whether a belief, an understanding, an impulse or desire, or even…old sewing stuff.

All sunshine makes a desert

My father died 10 years ago today. Losing a parent is huge. Even though it’s the natural course of events, you’re never fully prepared for the enormity of the event itself and the emptiness you feel inside. The emotions that flood into you consume every waking moment for whatever time it takes to grieve. You go through all the emotions of death reactions—disbelief, profound sadness, depression, more depression, emptiness, fear, anger, confusion, wonder, and finally acceptance.

21_oakWhen I buried my father’s ashes under an oak tree, the tree was only 3 or 4 years old and kind of spindly. Today, his oak tree is tall and mighty and will soon dominate our meadow with its huge branches. I like to think that his ashes have helped “his” tree grow into a gentle giant.

I wrote about my dad in my book, The Field Stones of Umbria. I look back on the chapter about him, “The Oak Tree”, and take comfort in the words I wrote. I’m hoping that these words will bring comfort to all of us who have lost our parents, and especially to a very special childhood friend who just lost her father; he was a second dad to me and such a wonderful man that I can scarcely put words to how I feel about him leaving our lives and this world. Here are some excerpts from my book:

“My father’s and my relationship was probably typical of most father-daughter relationships. It had its ups and downs, laughter and tears, great talks and terrible arguments. We had some estrangement and reuniting, some good heartfelt connections and some polar-opposite philosophies. But above all, he was my dad, I was his daughter, and those words alone imply a special relationship.

“My dad’s greatest strength was his humor. He said it got him through the roughest times of his life, especially during World War II in the South Pacific. He also had wonderful sayings that could wipe away the small tragedies in my life. I got stood up once for a date when I was 17 years old, and I was crushed. My dad held me and let me cry, then he told me all sorts of funny stories about how rotten guys are, and how my heart would be broken time and again. He told me that I had to find something in my life that would never let me down, something that I could always fall back on. It could be anything—painting, crocheting, writing—anything to call my own. He told me that was the only way to get through the rough times, like when people let you down.

“I was feeling so bad about crying, but then he said that the tears were good because “all sunshine makes a desert.” To this day when I cry, I’m convinced that I’m filling my life with rich forests and lush greenery.

P1000051“I look at the oak every day from my window and smile at him. I sit with him and tell him that there were good times and bad, laughter and tears, comfort and struggle. That we did our best with each other, and above all, that his memory lives inside of me, and I love him.”

I’ll go sit with my dad today under his mighty oak tree, 10 years later, and wish him a very special Father’s Day.

Prague surprises

Enchanting, intriguing, beautiful Prague. Take away the tourists and gaudy souvenir shops, and you’ll see one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Prague is my husband’s home town, but he had to escape when the communists took over. And then came 1989. He was able to go back and stand on the ground of his beloved Prague. To say that it was unbearably emotional is an understatement.

Today, Prague is stuffed full of tourists with heads up and mouths open. It can be suffocating. But we know how to escape the crowds and venture into the more untouched spaces. I love Prague. It has become my home away from home.

If one knows where to look, there are surprises lurking around corners, behind doors, some in plain sight that the tourists don’t even see.

I get a kick out of watching the tourists watching the famous clock in Old Town Square.

Here are some of my Prague surprises. I hope they delight and surprise you as well. (If you click on any photo, a slide show appears.)

So far away…

So far away.
Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door.
Doesn’t help to know you’re just time away…

-Carole King, Tapestry, 1971.

One of the hardest things (perhaps really the only hard thing) about living in Italy is that we’re so far away from our loved ones. I wouldn’t trade living in Italy for anything else, and yet… If only we could beam everyone here for the weekend!

At night, when I go out on the terrace to hear the footfalls of the deer in the fields, the night birds, the rain, or look at the moon, I think of our family in the U.S., our friends, my mom. So many things I want to tell her about, but alas, I can’t. At least not in reality. I can still tell her about the music we’ve just listened to, which she would love. Or the full moon–her passion. Or something our little Olinka did today, like climbing the olive tree.

When one lives as an outsider in a foreign country, it takes courage to keep the spirits up, to make new friends, to keep appreciating the amazing things one has. At least we made the choice to live here. The thought of the millions of refugees around the world who have been tossed out of their homelands because of tyrannical governments, religion, slave-trade, or war…well, it’s just impossible to fathom their cruel fate.

So, the moment of sadness passes, the thankfulness we feel for our lives returns, and the good memories dance in my mind. They warm the heart. They make it all worthwhile being so far away.

Revisiting old souls

Decided to re-post this piece from two years ago. I love this history…hope you do as well!

All Souls Day (November 1 or 2 depending on the time in history). The day of the dead. Time to visit cemeteries and pay respects to ancestors and loved ones, integrating the past with the present. Life is a cycle of birth, living, decline, and death. It is a gift to be cherished, and the dead are to be honored for the life they once gave.

An excerpt from my book, The Field Stones of Umbria, describes the history of this day, as well as Halloween:

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth (in some countries, it is the Day of the Dead). In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the 400 years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralla, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and this probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve, and eventually, Halloween. In A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead.